Belgian king regrets ‘wounds of past’ in first Congo visit

Belgium’s King Philippe has expressed “deepest regrets for the wounds of the past” on his first visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony.

His speech in Kinshasa fell short of a formal apology for decades of brutal rule, during which millions of people were enslaved and killed.

“The colonial regime as such was based on exploitation and domination. This regime was that of an unequal relationship, in itself unjustifiable, marked by paternalism, discrimination and racism. It gave rise to . . . humiliations,” Philippe said in the presence of Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi.

“On the occasion of my first trip to Congo, here, in front of the Congolese people and those who still suffer from it today, I wish to reaffirm my deepest regrets for these wounds of the past,” he said.

King Philippe, who had previously expressed his regrets in a letter, arrived in Kinshasa on Tuesday with Queen Mathilde and Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo, his first visit to the DRC since assuming the throne in 2013.

Millions of Congolese people are estimated to have died between 1885 and 1908 when Belgium’s King Leopold II ruled the country as his personal fiefdom, exploiting the country for its lucrative rubber crop and minerals.

The DRC achieved independence in 1960. During the anti racism protests of 2020, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in the US, demonstrators targeted statues of King Leopold II.

Soon after, Belgium’s parliament launched a commission to examine its exploitation of the country under Leopold II and colonial rule. That same year a Belgian court cleared the way for the independent country’s first prime minister Patrice Lumumba’s tooth, his only remains, to be returned to Lumumba’s family. Lumumba was assassinated in 1961 by Katangan secessionists in the presence of Belgian officials. His death followed a CIA-backed coup. The tooth is due to arrive in the DRC later this month.

“We all know that, in that long relationship between the countries, there was a period that was painful, painful for the Congolese population,” de Croo said in Kinshasa. “I think it’s important to look that straight in the eyes.”

Even without a full apology, “for us, the king’s visit is the symbol of the new relationship that we are building with Belgium. A relationship against a backdrop of recognition of a painful, difficult historical past,” Patrick Muyaya, DRC’s communications minister, told the Financial Times.

Amid a global debate over repatriation of historical artefacts, Philippe handed over a traditional Kakuungu mask to Congo’s national museum as an “indefinite loan”.

Guido Gryseels, director-general of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, said the “mask is a real important addition as it is one that they don’t have in their collections at the moment”. The Belgian museum has some 84,000 Congolese objects in its collection. The Kakuungu mask is “on loan” pending legislation to allow for the restitution of artefacts, Gryseels said.

For Anne Wetsi Mpoma, a Belgian-Congolese activist and art curator involved in restitution efforts, this should be just the beginning. “From a moral and ethical standpoint it is obvious that the restitution process is completely legitimate and that Belgium must return the artefacts. This must be part of a reparations process.”

Some Congolese have demanded a full apology. “It is a beautiful speech with regrets and an admission of the misdeeds linked to colonisation and its consequences which still persist today as racism,” said Mona Pembele, a Congolese-Belgian activist. “If we really want to start a relationship of equals, start all over again, they must first apologise.”

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